Findings

In each of the 16 cases profiled in this report, there exists compelling evidence that the defendant was convicted of the crime he did not, in fact, commit. Viewed collectively, these 16 cases highlight patterns and practices in the administration of justice at the state and federal levels that violate constitutionally and internationally protected rights. Abuses that led to rights violations included the following:

Defense Attorneys:
  routinely failed to provide their clients with competent legal counsel.

In all 16 cases, the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death at a trial that did not conform to basic standards of fairness and due process. The lack of competent counsel undermined the right to a fair trail. There was compelling evidence that the defense attorneys failed to perform their duties to their clients with adequate competence. Defense attorneys, most of whom were appointed by the court, routinely failed to mount a defense, to investigate, to produce witnesses that could testify to the defendant’s innocence or challenge the prosecution’s evidence, to comply with court deadlines, to object to illegal or improper conduct, or to preserve evidence and issues for appellate review.

Prosecutors and police:
 
routinely engaged in misconduct during investigations and trials.

In all of the cases, there was compelling evidence of official misconduct and abuse committed at the investigation and trial stage. Suppression of exculpatory evidence was common. Prosecutors frequently relied on a single eyewitness or on jailhouse informants – sources shown to be unreliable. In some cases, witnesses were intimidated or offered deals for testifying. Confessions were obtained through coercion, force, threats, and even torture and then used to convict defendants despite the illegal means utilized to obtain the confessions. Line-ups were prejudicial and leading in many cases. In at least one case, evidence was probably planted.

Racial Bias:
 
fueled the actions of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges.

People of color are disproportionately represented on U.S. death rows. Furthermore, the race of the victim is a principle determinant in sentencing offenders to death. The combination of an African American defendant and a white victim is most likely to result in a death sentence. In these 16 cases, only one of the crime victims was black and 16 were white. Nine of the executed men were African American.

In every case in which an African American was the defendant, racial discrimination was a determining factor in the conviction. In many cases, prosecutors excluded jurors based on race, a practice found to be an unconstitutional form of racial discrimination by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 (Batson v. Kentucky). In some cases, lawyers – both for the prosecution and defense – used racist language to inflame the jury. In at lease one case, the judge and prosecutor were later found to have engaged in persistent racial discrimination.

State and Federal Appellate Courts:
  failed to intervene in cases with compelling evidence of innocence
  and evidence of rights violations.

In all of the cases, the decision of the trial court was appealed based on due process violations and, in some cases, on compelling evidence of innocence. In most of the cases, evidence of innocence was never heard in any court because it surfaced only after the original trial. In most cases, appeals were repeatedly denied without re-hearing, irrespective of the evidence. This was largely a result of strict appellate review standards and inflexible time limits. These include restrictions on federal courts’ ability to review convictions as mandated by the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and state time limits for the introduction of new evidence after sentencing.

The existence of innocence claims and the evidence to support these claims render the related allegations of unfairness and lack of due process particularly alarming. In all of the cases, both state and federal courts had every opportunity to remedy the rights violations but did not. Both state and federal courts failed to protect the rights enshrined not only in state constitutions and the Constitution of the United States, but also in international law. Courts overwhelmingly favored procedure over justice and efficiency over fairness. And, in so doing, state and federal governments sanctioned state killing of men who were probably innocent.